This is the one they’ve all raved about, the series that won award after award, the not that started good and got better. I mean, that’s defying the laws of gravity. It just doesn’t happen that TV series can keep on improving time after time… or does it? Well, being all things to all people probably helps, and the Wikipedia page for Breaking Bad goes the whole hog by categorising this series as crime drama, thriller, “contemporary western” (whatever that means) AND black comedy – though it’s still rock and roll to me.
However, this drama is no different to any other in one key respect: it follows the formula by starting with a pilot that sets up the scenario, then each episode with several enigmatic images, then uses a quality cast to unpeeled layers of the onion. Gradually it explores the outer reaches of its protagonist’s world while subtly moving the game forward, much as was done with House, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Dexter, any number of dramas coming out of the USA.
Here Walt White, chemistry teacher, husband to Skyler (she of the beady eye and ferocious jaw line, ready to crush a skull like cardboard) and father to Walt jr (who has mild CP and acts as a very positive role model for actors with disabilities) and an initially unborn daughter (Holly), discovers he has stage 3A lung cancer and decides to hook up with a former student to cook crystal meth to pay for treatment and leave his family secure. Of course the path to true druggy heaven does not run true so there are obstacles along the way, without which there would not be a series. You’d expect some really evil dealer sons of bitches on one side of the fence, but then you also get the family drama, the cancer stuff and a few moral dilemmas thrown in for good measure. The execs must have creamed themselves in delight to find a series ticking so many boxes in one hit, as it were.
But mostly it’s the cast that makes this one hit the high spots, just as Hugh Laurie made House, the late James Gandolfini made The Sopranos and Michael C Hall made Dexter – and Six Feet Under. Bryan Cranston cut his teeth on movies was a fine screen actor with a notable pedigree without becoming a household name, lacking the teen idol looks but never less than competent (see Argo.) He hit the big time in the TV series Malcolm in the Middle – about which I can say nothing, since I’ve never watched it before graduating to the starring role in BB. He makes Walt White his own, as you would expect of an accomplished character actor. He is not especially attractive or remarkable to behold but goes about his business as a man taken outside his comfort zone and surviving the only way he can and making it both credible and charismatic in the process – which is to say making the audience believe in him and feel empathy. That is the skill of the character actor, as opposed to the star name.
Oh yes, the other thing about the formula is that you always need a cheese character for the chalk hero to bounce off, often stacks of them. Here his main sparring partner is Aaron Paul‘s Jesse Pinkman – dude, dealer and ex-chemistry student at Walt’s High School, the guy with whom he saddles up to cook and sell pure meth in series 1. There is the sceptical pregnant wife whose character American audiences apparently dislike with a passion (Anna Gunn) and the persistent DEA agent brother-in-law (Dean Norris) and a number of other spiky and sadistic hombres who fade in and out as guest stars, all of whom add moments of conflict and feeling for added depth.
But for all these great ingredients you need more to sustain a drama series, let alone the spring-heeled effect that sees each series of that drama surpass the last without becoming tacky or melodramatic. The hook here is that in spite of everything, it charts the continued rise and rise of this mild-mannered teacher and family man with cancer into an unlikely but fully fledged drug baron – eventually superseding the coolest villain of the lot, Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), with many close shaves along the way. Even the friends he makes are not people you would readily trust, notably hard man Mike Ehrmentraut (Jonathan Banks) and dodgy lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk.)
Of course, there is drama in every episode and many minor and major story lines along the way, exposing with subtlety the horns of many a moral and social dilemma, and in turn demonstrating the very many excellent qualities of TV drama and acting at their respective best – but the real deal is definitely the helicopter view. Along the way there is a marital crisis and children issues, Hank’s DEA trials and tribulations, drug lords and the cartel, the sad tale of Jesse’s girlfriend, plenty of moments to shock and awe – and I’d particularly recommend the last episode of series 4 for one such.
But best of all, it is at once awful yet fascinating to watch the gradual transformation from a self-effacing guy who could die any time, one with whom our sympathies are carefully aligned, become ever more ruthless. If ever Walt had a problem with self-confidence, getting into the drugs trade and committing the odd murder of low-lifes (once the moral imperative is established) sure cures that issue. At first you expect the man to die with a knife in his back any moment but he defies your every expectation. This is a master class in overcoming adversity!
House is always House, Tony is Tony, Dexter is as Dexter does, but Walt goes through a metamorphosis from mundane caterpillar into a terrifying butterfly. He slowly shakes off the manifestations of his old life and blossoms forth into his inner tough guy, something most middle-aged men only dream of. Walt starts out looking like Michael Palin‘s version of an accountant in Monty Python, cut out for anything but dealing in the dangerous world of drugs, but when the process is complete he terrifies. Now bald following chemo but complete with goatee beard (the change in facial hair is significant), he adopts shades to replace the round grandad specs, cool gear to replace drab clothes and Y-fronts, and acquires an attitude to match, one he never knew he possessed. A complex character then – and a few insights available too into why Cranston is secretly scary (see here.)
In short, Walt becomes the anti-hero of his age, the good boy made bad ass that every middle-aged dad would secretly like to be. But if so then Jesse is the small-time dude gone off the rails who finds himself increasingly ill at ease with the pace with which the partnership heads from minor misdemeanours to major league criminality, revealing a moral streak counterbalancing Walt’s descent into moral purgatory. I know Paul also won awards for his performance though to me it seems strangely less credible, strangely because he looks and sounds the part. It’s not that he does anything badly, though arguably by the 5th series he has matured into the role and starts to sound more convincing. Maybe his transition is the harder one to perform?
Talking of moral purgatory, it’s a touch ironic that a country apparently intolerant of those deviating from the norm and governed by those who profess christian morals should make such a huge success of TV series and movies dealing with characters living, by choice or necessity, on the outer fringes of respectable society. Maybe it’s a fantasy thing but Americans want to see those who push boundaries – but then for the most part stay safely within their own.
So then, a finely honed drama with twists. How could you possibly resist? For its genre (which to my mind is human drama and how far in a crisis the human mind can be pushed), it sits alongside the very best, so credit to Vince Gilligan and team for the quality of drama – and indeed for a number of genuine shocks along the way, though I’m not going to spoil the surprises for you ;).
PS. In case you thought this was the most scientifically adept show on TV, there were mistakes aplenty – see here.